Have you ever been to an old downtown and marveled at the historic buildings? Have you ever wondered how they could create such beautiful buildings on such small budgets, compared to the placeless architecture we are told is barely affordable today?
The truth is that those multi-story, mixed-use buildings lining the street were built by a different culture. We are a different people now, and we demand different things from our built environment.
But that old American culture was a very clever one, and we can profit from studying what they did right, and how they did it. So here is their basic recipe:
1. Leverage small investments
The typical traditional urban building is between 20 to 40 feet wide, and between 60 to 200 feet deep. This small width was a product of structural engineering limitations. A traditional building with masonry walls and wooden floors could not span further without significant cost increases, and tax policies often charged by street frontage instead of square footage. The result was small frontages and deep buildings.
The overall effect of a traditional streetscape is like walking through a well-curated art exhibit, where people can admire the buildings or the products in the glass storefronts. The density of different buildings and stores satisfies the pedestrian’s need for visual interest. It is a key part of what we call “walkability”.
Perhaps even more importantly, the small sizes encouraged ordinary citizens to become developers. Many buildings were financed directly by business owners or residents, who would offset building costs with lease income from unused spaces. These self-developing streetscapes ensured that no single developer or architect controlled the evolution of the city. It would reflect a social, shared history instead.
This is what made historic downtowns beautiful in a way that no government or philanthropist could recreate today, and why historic preservationists nurse a broken heart with every lost structure.
2. Share with your neighbors
The party wall style of building, where adjacent buildings used the same structural wall to support their floors, was a very important money saving technique in traditional buildings. From the dawn of human civilization we have been building cities by slowly adding onto the existing structures. However, new construction codes that strictly regulate fire safety have eliminated this technique, and for all intents and purposes party walls are no longer in common use. Every building is now an independent structure.
The change has been beneficial in terms of life safety, but the effect on older buildings has been onerous as owners were left with a complicated legal situation just when downtowns were under fierce competition from the suburbs. The results are plain to see in downtown Indy, where adjacent buildings were torn down for new parking lots and the old walls still bear the marks of beam pockets.
When we lost party walls, we didn’t just lose an inexpensive way to build. We lost an inexpensive way to live. A traditional building with party walls on either side will only have exposed facades on the back alley and the front elevation. There are two benefits: reduced heating costs and reduced facade costs.
The heating and cooling issues are simple enough to explain, because there are fewer pathways for heat transfer (assuming your neighbor is also climate controlled). This results in a significant savings compared to independent buildings with 4 exposed walls.
The construction costs are also lower, because only 2 facades must be weather-proof. The owners typically used the savings to invest in attractive architecture with architectural flourishes, since it made business sense. The corner buildings, with a higher burden of exposed facade costs, would naturally attract more profitable tenants. The loss of a corner building is the ultimate way to devastate historic districts, because there will never be a profitable way to replace what has been lost. The economic conditions that created those buildings is gone.
3. Build up, not out
Traditional buildings, and traditional streetscapes by extension, never happened overnight. They evolved over time, as each small plot was filled in and then raised upwards. The neat thing about masonry walls is that they can support an incredible amount of weight if they are braced at each floor level, so adding a new floor on top was usually a simple process. This gave owners the ability to start small and incrementally expand their property as needed.
Here in Indianapolis you can see this evolutionary process frozen in time. The old streetcar stops were the commercial areas for each neighborhood, and as you travel towards downtown you will be traveling in time. On the outskirts of the old city limits, you will find buildings that look like 1-story general stores, but maybe just a solitary one or one that was converted from a residence. A bit closer in and you will find a healthier pocket of commercial buildings, some with 2 stories. Look closer, you can usually find where the first buildings were upgraded from 1 to 2 stories. A change of masonry, architectural style, or apparent age will show. Sometimes it’s easiest to spot in the rain when the masonry takes in water at different rates.
The closest neighborhoods will have fully formed commercial streets with 4 or 5 story buildings, which were the final stage of traditional building evolution until the invention of the safety elevator. This incremental development paradigm was a very cost-effective way to establish a business district, and also very different from our current style of development. The “build at once” streetscape phenomenon is a recent invention, and only necessary because of the presence of parking requirements.
Minimum Parking Requirements, whether for permitting compliance or loan approval, have been the single greatest enemy of the traditional building technique. The need for parking spaces based on square footage means that adding an additional level to a building requires more parking. And in an urban area, land is a limited resource. Building a parking garage is far too costly and complex a process when considering the needs of so many varied businesses on a single street, and so the only solution is to close the business and relocate where land is plentiful.
Lessons to Learn
As you can see, traditional building developers used their limitations as advantages, making the most out of known technology and social behavior. It is up to us to figure out how to apply these concepts to our modern urban areas. But the key lessons here are to create a development environment where buildings can start small, expand gradually, and create mutually beneficial relationships with their neighbors.